Mary L. Heen


In the 1840s, state legislatures began modifying the law of marital status to ease the economic distress of widows and children at the family breadwinner's death. Insurance-related exceptions to the common law doctrine of "marital unity" under coverture permitted married women to enter into insurance contracts and protected life insurance proceeds from their husbands' creditors. These early insurance-related statutory exceptions to coverture introduced an important theoretical question that persisted for the rest of the nineteenth century--and into the next--as broader legal and social reforms took hold. How could equality of contract for married women be reconciled with the traditional dependencies of the home? Equality of contract also introduced the practical economic problem of how the lives of women could be valued apart from their husbands when the law otherwise enforced their economic dependency.

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